Yesterday I preached from 1 John 3:16-24 on the topic, “How We Know What Love Is.” John wrote the first letter that bears his name to a specific congregation of the first century. In that letter, he repeatedly encourages them to love God and to love others. As a matter of fact, John says that we can’t say we love God if we aren’t showing love to others in our actions. Here’s the audio:
It’s 11:12 PM on Friday night, March 8, 2013. I cannot sleep despite having taken several medications that are supposed to relieve the pain I’m having. Yesterday, after two weeks of agonizing symptoms and three trips to hospital emergency rooms, a neurologist diagnosed me with idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, a fancy way of saying I have unexplained pain, numbness, and weakness in my legs, arms, and other parts of my body.
During his examination, he determined that I no longer have reflexes in my legs and arms. You know the test: the doctor whacks you on the knee with a rubber hammer and your leg pops up involuntarily. Except mine doesn’t, not even slightly. I am now walking with the aid of either a cane or a walker because the bottoms of my feet are numb, and my legs give way without warning.
Needless to say, this is an unwelcomed and unexpected situation. I am an extremely healthy person. I lost 40 pounds last year eating a low-fat vegan diet, just like Bill Clinton does. My heart, which has been tested three different times over the past two weeks, was described by the cardiologist as “as good as it gets.” My blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar are all well within the optimum ranges.
In January of this year, I contracted a nasty virus and was sick for three weeks. I was so sick that my wonderful church family gave me the entire month off to recuperate. I had only been back to work three weeks when the first of my symptoms began to appear. On Monday I will have a MRI, and on Tuesday a nerve conductivity test where apparently you become a human pin cushion to measure the speed and conductivity of nerves throughout the body.
To be on this side of illness is a new experience for me. I now know why when I visit my members in the hospital, their arms are black-and-blue from the IV ports inserted in them. I am more able to empathize with the loss of dignity in times of illness as others talk about your bodily functions and as you lie half-naked on an uncomfortable gurney hoping you’re not putting on a show for those passing by.
The other part of this experience is to be on the receiving end of love and care demonstrated by my community and congregation. Members have brought food, sent flowers, loaned me a recliner and a walker, have prayed, visited, and expressed their concern over and over again. I have found that it is encouraging to have someone visit when you’re sick. I do feel supported, loved, and cared for by the people I have called my flock for almost 9 years.
Debbie and I do not know if this condition is permanent or temporary. In either event, we do know that God is walking with us down this road, whether the journey is long or brief. Most importantly, we feel God’s presence in the cards, calls, visits, food, flowers, and expressions of concern from our church family.
I’m learning some new things about the ways of God. Not that God caused this illness, or even would will it on me or anyone, but I am learning that in the midst of difficulty, God is present in Spirit and in the lives of the people in whose hearts he lives and reigns. I hope to be back soon with a regular schedule of sermons and thoughts on small church life, but for now I’m on my own journey to the cross and empty tomb, but I’m not on it alone.
Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, September 7, 2008. I hope you have a wonderful day at your church.
A New Debt For A New Day
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
A World in Debt
Sometime today, according to the Washington Post and other media organizations, the federal government will take over the two organizations chartered to underwrite the mortgages of millions of homes in the United States. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which sound like an eccentric aunt and uncle from the country, have fallen victim to the subprime mortgage mess. So, the federal government will take them over, fire their CEOs, and guarantee their loans. Both Barack Obama and John McCain agree this is a necessary step to shore up the sagging confidence in the US financial markets.
Our society operates on debt, and the action of the government indicates that confidence in the soundness of that debt is critical to our economic survival. For a long time, our nation was one of the few that had a successful debt economy. If you wanted a home or a car or a washing machine in most other countries, you had to pay cash. But, with our American ingenuity, we created the “debt society” telling each other and the world we no longer had to delay our grandest wishes, we could have them now, and pay for them later.
And other nations began to copy us. I read recently of the rise of automobile sales in China. Just a few years ago when I made regular trips to China, there were few dealerships, no financing, and only the very wealthy could afford an private automobile. Today all that has changed and increasingly affluent Chinese are buying their own cars on credit.
On one visit to the Mexican town of Juarez, across the border from El Paso, I stood in front of the maquilladora factory of a large electronics manufacturer. A large truck, like a U-Haul, was parked in front of the factory entrance. The rear door of the truck was rolled up, and inside there was a washer, a refrigerator, a stove, some TVs, and other household appliances. I noticed men and women walking up to the truck, reaching into their pockets, to hand the man standing in the back of the truck a handful of money. I asked the sales rep with me to explain the scene. I thought these workers were buying new appliances. “No,” he said, “the appliances on this truck are models. These workers can buy appliances like these on credit, but they have to pay some each week.” And I realized that we had successfully exported not only our low skill jobs, but the American practice of buy now, pay later.
Paul’s Encouragement to the Church in Rome
Those examples bring us to our text today. Romans 13:8-14 begins, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” I have actually heard this text interpreted to mean “stay out of debt.” Which might be a very good idea, but Paul uses the idea of debt here to teach us another lesson.
Paul is saying, “Don’t owe anybody anything except the debt of love.” Now, it would really be much easier for us to talk about getting out of debt today. Dave Ramsey has a wonderful course he teaches under his Financial Peace University, that teaches folks how to become debt-free. Ramsey started on the radio in Nashville, where he lives and his financial counseling business is located, because he lost everything when the real estate market collapsed during the last financial scandal. But, that’s not Paul’s main point.
Paul is reminding the Christians in Rome that the debt they owe, and the only one they can never pay, is the debt of love. Rome was the Washington DC, Paris, London, Shanghai, and Riyadh of its day, all rolled into one. It was the home of the emperor, the seat of power, the stuff of legend. And Christians in Rome were in the insignificant minority. And yet, Paul says they owe a debt — the debt of love.
Paul reminds the Roman followers of Christ that love doesn’t take another person’s wife or husband, doesn’t take their possessions, doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even want what they have. Love is the fulfillment of the law, and Paul quotes both the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus when he reminds them to love their neighbors as they love themselves.
But who were their neighbors? They were the Roman authorities, the ruling classes, the pagan temple goers, the adulterous men, the sexually promiscuous Romans. Roman culture exuded a sexual flavor unlike many before it. The Roman theater was reserved for men only because the plays presented were so bawdy. The well-to-do Roman citizen kept not only a wife, but also one or more lovers at his disposal. Respectable women were required to stay at home, but respectable men could do anything they wished. It was a culture saturated with sex, power, and possessions.
Sound familiar? Well, we are not that far from Rome ourselves, as countless speechwriters, commentators, and preachers have pointed out over the years. But, Paul reminds Christians that in the midst of this pagan, licentious society, they are to live lives of love. But more than that — they owe a debt of love to those around them.
A Debt That Cannot Be Repaid, But That Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Try
Love, Paul implies, is a debt we owe that can never be repaid in full. When we moved from Atlanta to Fort Worth for me to attend seminary, we were pretty poor. The church I left paid me about $12,000 a year, and even in 1976 that wasn’t big money. So, when we moved, we took all the cash we thought we had out of our checking account, leaving just enough to close out the account and pay the service charges.
As you can imagine, we cut it too close. So, in a few weeks, we got a notice from the bank that we owed an overdraft charge. I dutifully wrote out the check, mailed it to the bank, and thought that was that. All taken care of. Well, apparently, the bank received my check just after the deadline for avoiding another service charge. So, a few weeks later, another notice arrived, for the same amount I had just paid. I sent another check, realizing what must have happened. And guess what? That’s right, the same thing happened again. I finally called the bank to explain my predicament. I explained that I kept sending in money, and they kept charging me, and would this ever end? The bank representative was very kind, waived the fee, and applied my last payment, closing out the account.
But our debt of love isn’t so easily resolved. It never goes away. There is never a moment at which we catch up, get a credit on the books, and can skip the next payment. Frustrating? Not really, and here’s why:
Paul says something wonderful is happening — the night is ending, the day is dawning, a new day is coming. Salvation is closer than when we believed! All the more reason to love with wild abandon.
A New Definition of Love
But, Paul redefines love for them and us. He reminds them that what Roman society calls love — wild parties, sexual immorality, the deeds of darkness — is not love at all. Paul challenges them to put on Christ — like you’d put on a new coat. Clothe yourself with Jesus, not the stuff that masquerades in the culture as love.
We may not have the Roman definition of love, but our society also has an inadequate understanding of love. We have glamorized love in all its romantic (which comes from the root word Rome) glory. Or, we have turned love into a sappy kind of sentimentality that is like a gigantic warm fuzzy. But, that’s not the love Paul is speaking of either.
The love Paul talks about is the love Jesus has for this world, and we are to have to others. It may have its sentimental moments, but mostly it’s about hard work, sweat, and inconvenience. It’s about putting others first, about giving of ourselves, about caring for others, about opening our eyes to what God has done for us, and living that before the world.
Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” Okay, that’s great for Mother Teresa, after all she was a saint, or will be pretty soon. But, let me tell you a story about Mother Teresa herself.
I finished reading Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irrestible Revolution, this week. It’s about Shane’s journey to find his way as a lover of Jesus. On his journey, one of the things Shane did was to write Mother Teresa, asking if he could come to India to help with the work she was doing. He wrote and waited and waited. No reply. Finally, he contacted a nun here in the US, and asked for Mother Teresa’s telephone number. Amazingly, she gave it to him, and he called it. Shane said he expected someone to answer in a very professional manner, but instead, after the phone had rung several times, a woman with a raspy voice said “Hello.”
Shane explained he was calling for Mother Teresa. The raspy voice said, “This is Mother Teresa.” Being a smart-alec, Shane started to say, “Yeah and I’m the Pope.” But he restrained himself, only to realize he was really talking to Mother Teresa. He explained that he wanted to come to India for the summer. She said, “That’s a long time.” So, Shane said he could come for a month, or a couple of weeks or a couple of days. “No,” Momma T (as he calls her), said, “come.” And, so he did.
He arrived in India, tells wonderful stories of the experiences he had helping with the work of caring for the dying. But he noticed as they knelt to pray each morning, that Mother Teresa had terribly misshapen feet. He didn’t want to ask, but in talking with a nun one day, the subject came up. The nun asked if he had noticed Mother Teresa’s feet. Shane said he had, but didn’t want to ask what had happened to her. So the nun explained.
The Missionaries of Charity received lots of donations, she said. Often the donations were the cast-offs and included clothing, and occasionally shoes. She explained that Mother Teresa would search through the shipment of shoes, looking for the worst pair, which she took as her own. Years of wearing ill-fitting worn-out shoes had left her feet misshapen and painful. That’s the kind of love Paul is talking about.
Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic worker movement, said, “Love is a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, but it is the only answer.”
St. Vincent de Paul said that when he gave bread to the beggars, he got on his knees to ask forgiveness from them. In the early Christian church, one of the signs of Pentecost was that there was no unmet need among them. Paul, writing to another church, the church in Corinth, talks about spiritual gifts. But he says —
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
If as many books had been written about Christian love as have been written about spiritual gifts, the church would behave differently, and the world would be a better place.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Love Is No Easy Road
Have you ever used one of those blood pressure machines at the drug store? When I go to a drugstore that has one, I usually try it out. You know how this works — you sit in the seat, put your arm into the stationary cuff, and punch the button. In a few minutes — if you didn’t move — the machine will display your blood pressure. Mine is usually good, so I’m usually pretty proud of myself.
But this week, I had the opportunity to check my “love pressure” and I didn’t come out so well. I can’t tell you the details, but I was trying to help someone here in our area. The situation didn’t work out, and I explained that to this individual. I expected a big “thank you for trying” email. Instead, I got a really good chewing out. Well, I was livid. I wanted that person to get straightened out, to see the light, to treat me better, to appreciate my efforts. And, I spent far more time on seeing that that happened than I should have. And it got me absolutely no where.
As I was rolling around in my anger and hurt, I thought about this sermon. I really hate it when that happens. And I realized that’s what Paul meant — Owe no one anything, except the continuing debt of love. It doesn’t matter how I was treated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if I’m not appreciated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if my best efforts are misunderstood — I’m supposed to love.
What amazed me was the anger and resentment, and even retribution, that burst into full bloom before I had any idea of what was really happening. So, this business of “the love debt” is no easy road.
In front of us today, on this communion table, is the graphic, tangible evidence of love — unconditional, unearned, unappreciated. Jesus loves us that way. So, this memorial is not just about death and blood and broken bodies. It’s about love. This scant meal of bread and wine is a reminder — a memorial — of love. That’s why we take it. To remind ourselves of the debt of love we owe, that we can never pay. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. “Owe no one anything, but love.”
Some in my Southern Baptist denomination are calling for more stringent church discipline. That’s mostly because we can’t find about half of our 16-million members. Obviously, some of our folks don’t take church membership very seriously. The logical thing to do to solve that problem is tighten up — enforce church discipline — make members tow the line. But, that’s the wrong approach.
My solution? Do away with church membership all together. There is no biblical basis for “membership” in a church, and it’s largely ineffective today. The alternative is to create “participants” — one church calls them “partners” — people who connect to a church by participating in some or all of the things a church does.
For instance, some will be interested in worship. Others will take a course in parenting. Others will help in the food pantry, or whatever your community ministry is. Others will want to bring their children to an afterschool program like AWANA or Pioneer Clubs. Some will volunteer to help in the community garden. Some will be involved in more than one aspect of church life, others will not.
By creating “participants” churches no longer have to press people to “join.” We can then focus on building The Kingdom, rather than our own kingdoms. The objection, of course, is that people will not take church seriously if they don’t join. But, most don’t take membership seriously now, so I’m not sure we’ll lose anything. Plus, there is a difference in “belonging” and “joining.” You’ve probably experienced people who joined, but never really belonged. They soon disappear. By contrast, participants would feel they belonged to their interest group — or else they wouldn’t come.
By identifying them as participants churches will free people to experience the ministry of church in various ways, without pushing for a premature commitment. As for leadership, cream always rises to the top. Churches will easily identify potential leaders by their enthusiasm, commitment, and involvement. Potential leaders are then invited to join the “leadership development team” to be formed as leaders in the congregation.
Finally, most churches connect professing faith in Christ and joining the church. In the South, “joining the church” is actually code for becoming a Christian. By unbundling conversion and membership, churches make clear that commitment to Christ is our first priority, with participation in a community of faith as its natural by-product.
Local church administration will undergo a significant revision in this century. Would your church give up its membership rolls for the participant concept? Or, is this a really wacky idea? I’d like to know what you think.
We had a long and intense discussion in a committee meeting tonight at our church. The subject: how can we reach more families and children? My challenge to the group was to lead the church to make a commitment as a congregation to the “what” — reaching families and children. If we make a commitment to “what” we want to do, we can then all work together to figure out the details of “how” we’re going to reach more families and children. The “what” commitment comes before the “how.” Most of the time we get it backwards. We want to talk “how” before we decide “what.” Then, when our “how” fails, we abandon the “what” along with it. Commit to “what” you want to do — the “how” will follow.
On November 21, I posted If gas hits $4/gal, what will your church do? Comments indicated some thought it was not going to be a problem, others were keeping a close eye on economic developments. This week 5 economic items of interest all converged:
- Low consumer confidence. According to government economists, if consumers spend less, then fewer goods are purchased, fewer manufactured, more jobs lost, and unemployment rises. Consumer confidence hit a 5-year low this reporting period.
- Rising gas prices. Oil routinely closes above $100/barrel now. $4 per gallon gas is predicted for this spring. Consumers will likely conserve by making fewer trips, and church might be one of the places less traveled to.
- The subprime mortgage crisis. Note that banks, mortgage holders, and investment banks are writing down billions of dollars in bad loans. Most economists believe this is far from over, with lots of foreclosures, tight credit, and more banks in trouble.
- Weak dollar. I don’t understand a lot about economics, but I get this one from my international travels. When you enter a foreign country, you exchange your good ole US dollars for local currency. A weaker dollar “buys” less foreign currency, therefore you have less money to spend. Other implications also exist, particularly in our national debt, but those aren’t good either.
- Recession talk. It’s out there — the R-word. Recession is being talked about for all the reasons I mention above, and then some.
What does this mean for churches? Churches that practice good stewardship will have fewer problems. Churches that have borrowed to fund building expansion or other projects might face some difficulty. I believe we are in a period of economic uncertainty, and churches would be wise to watch the economic indicators all around them.
Our church is in an area that is undergoing tremendous economic change, and it does affect churches here. Lost jobs, lost wages translate into fewer contributions, plus families move to take jobs in other communities. So, churches can lose not just money, but members, too. What do you see happening in your community? Are your members discussing economics? Are companies in your area hiring or laying off? What steps is your church taking, if any, to weather an economic slowdown?
8:05am — Debbie and I finish breakfast and say the morning office from Celtic Daily Prayer, a tradition we try to keep everyday.
8:35am — Preparing to visit a homebound member when I receive a call at home from her daughter that she died this morning some time in her sleep. Went to the home to be with the family.
10:00am — Returned to the church in time for a construction meeting regarding the community center. Meeting addresses some design challenges and lasts much longer than I had planned.
11:45am — Phone conversation with an editor who is publishing a short article I wrote. Back and forth by email on a couple of corrections. Final draft approved.
12:40pm — Going out the office door, someone from the community pulls me aside regarding a project that just fell through.
12:50pm — Home for lunch and take a couple of calls at home. Check email, talk to Debbie about when we might actually do some Christmas shopping. Maybe not this week.
2:30pm — Return to office to work on the Bible study for tonight. I have only two weeks, tonight and next week, then we’re off on Wednesdays for two weeks. Decide to review the Christmas story in all the gospels, and use a harmony for the outline.
4:15pm — Back to the member’s home to check on arrangements for the funeral, visitation, and how we can help the family.
5:15pm — Pick up Debbie and head to church for Wednesday fellowship meal.
5:45pm — Fellowship meal. The caterer has no extra help tonight due to Christmas parties elsewhere, so we all have to pitch in to serve and clean up, which everyone does willingly. I have to make a quick trip home to find more white bags for the children to decorate for Christmas. Back to the church with bags in hand.
6:30pm — Lead prayer and Bible study. The Christmas story “harmony” goes well.
7:40pm — Home. Check email. Think about funeral sermon. Read our weekly paper that came in the mail today. Update a couple of things on my blog. Call a member to cancel our horse-and-wagon caroling for Saturday because the weather is expected to be cold and wet, maybe freezing rain. This person is a children’s Sunday School teacher, and asks me to come into their class on Sunday morning and talk about how you become a Christian. Several kids have been talking about this, she says.
9:30pm — Writing this. Done for the night. I think.